Why Should Leaders Care about Diversity and Inclusion?
When discussing diversity and inclusion (D&I), some ask questions like “Why should we care?’ and “How does it affect the bottom line?” For me, the answer goes back to my first job in high school. I worked in a restaurant and one of my managers was gay. He wasn’t out to the employees, but everyone knew – and mocked him behind his back for it. “Here comes flamboyant Mike!” The other managers saw all the employees do this . . . and either said nothing or joined in. As a young closeted gay kid, this didn’t make me want to be the best employee I could be. I didn’t feel welcome in my own workplace – and leadership was contributing to this problem.
Therefore, should leaders care about diversity and inclusion? I say yes! But why?
First, is there a business case for diversity and inclusion? One large-scale study of more than 500 organizations found that as racial and gender diversity increased, positive outcomes for the organization resulted — such as increased sales revenue, more customers and greater profits. Admittedly, some of the research on this issue is mixed, so this assertion has not always been supported by data. This may be because it can be difficult to conclusively measure the effects of diversity and inclusion – but that doesn’t mean it’s wrong or should be ignored. What is the dollar value of employees working well with each other and not feeling uncomfortable in their work environment? On the other hand, what is the cost of an organization being “named and shamed” on social media for having a diversity problem?
However, is this even the right question to be asking? Is the business case for diversity and inclusion the reason why leaders should care about it? Some have argued that “the business case for diversity . . . is not in and of itself the most effective way for organizations to foster support for policies that promote meaningful diversity.” In other words: focusing just on the bottom line may not give you the results you want. Instead of the business case, think about the human case. The best leaders treat their employees with respect, and they foster a culture that similarly supports inclusivity. In the workplace, people have to work together; no one works in isolation. How well will diverse groups of people work together if leaders are not facilitating communication and collaboration (at best) or even ignoring the very real experiences of discrimination and hardship many minorities often face (at worst)? As leaders, it is our obligation to care about the well-being of our followers.
Notice that I keep referring to diversity AND inclusion here. This is intentional; the two are not necessarily considered synonymous with each other. Diversity is often thought of as representation; does everyone have a seat at the table? But inclusion goes beyond this. It typically refers to beyond observing if diverse people are represented in an organization, but asking if they also feel included and integrated into the organization. Are their voices heard at the table? Or do they just feel like token minorities — added in to meet an imaginary quota?
In conclusion, I argue that yes, leaders DO need to care about diversity and inclusion. Modern society leaves no way around it; people that are different from each other will work together, and leadership can help ensure that everything runs as smoothly as possible. Yes, an argument can be made that there is a business case for this, and that ignoring this issue can lead to organizational (and financial) problems.
But more importantly, there is a human case for it, too. We owe it to each other to treat each other well at work – it’s the right thing to do.
 Herring, C. (2017). Is diversity still a good thing? American Sociological Review, 82, 868 - 877.
 Unzueta, M., & Knowles, E. D. (2014). The 'business case' for diversity may not by itself make the strongest case for diversity: What a profit-maximizing rationale for affirmative action ignores and why it matters. In K. M. Thomas, V. C. Plaut, & N. M. Tran (Eds.) Diversity Ideologies in Organizations. New York: Routledge/Taylor & Francis Group.
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